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Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Catalonia and the Baltics

Maybe it is because a young friend of mine here in Barcelona has just come back from a holiday in Finland with an Estonian girlfriend, or something similar, but I am pretty sensitive at the moment to the comparisons which are being made between what is happening here in Catalonia and what is happening in Tallinin.

This article in the Baltic Times today about language teaching in Estonian schools (complete text at the end of the post) is typical of what is in my head.

Basically I don't know a great deal about the current language reforms in Estonian schools, but, going by our experience here in Catalonia, intensive teaching in the Estonian language in the schools is vital as a means of integrating the Russian speaking young people into Estonian society and the Estonian labour market.

First off a few facts concerning Catalonia. The population here is 7 million. This breaks down roughly as follows - Catalan speaking families 3 million, Spanish speaking families from the internal migrations of the 1950s and 1960s 3 million, recent - post 2000 immigrants - 1 million. So native Catalan speakers are a minority, yet Catalan is the predominant public language. And Catalonia doesn't even have a state, just regional autonomy, and control over the education system. Sometimes you can do a lot with just a little.

Now all of this becomes very important when you come to think about the economic difficulties facing the Baltic economies at the present time, difficulties which can be summed up in just two words: labour shortages. As a result migration is going to become a very important lifeline for the economic development of these countries, as I explain in the Latvian case in this post here.

Now Catalonia - despite being a historically relatively low fertility area - has been able to grow into one of the richest and economically most dynamic regions of Europe quite simply by leveraging immigration. Just look at the numbers. It is obvious.

What is also important is that Catalonia has developed an immense capacity for assimilating migrants from a whole variety of different cultures, including those coming from its large Spanish neighbour.

And don't imagine it has been any easier for Catalonia to assimilate Spanish speakers than it will be for the Baltics to assimilate Russian speaking ones. Maybe in the Baltic mind Russia is associated with authoritarianism and totalitarianism for Baltic citizens, but remember that after nearly 40 years of Franco dictatorship, Spain was also associated with precisely these images and feelings in the minds of the Catalans. But they have swallowed their bad feelings, and turned the situation around. And this is what the Baltic states must now do. Their very economic survival is at stake. Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania need to become migrant assimilation machines - a la Catalana. This is the only real way forward to guarantee their citizens the standard and quality of life which they have every right to dream of. Sometimes decisions in life aren't easy, but sometimes you need to bite the bullet.

President of EU Parliament visits Narva, praises language reforms

TALLINN - The President of the European Parliament Hans-Gert Poettering gave tacit support to Estonia’s schoolbased language reforms during an official visit from Aug. 14 - 17. Poettering, a German conservative, veered off the normal diplomatic path by visiting the eastern border city of Narva to talk with residents about language concerns. While he acknowledged the often-leveled claims of discrimination against Russian speaking residents, Poettering said wider study of the Estonian language was the only way forward. He praised the government’s school reforms, which will see one extra class delivered in Estonian at Russian-speaking schools from Sept. 1. Poettering said the program was the key to better integration.

“It will then be possible to move on. It is important that the two communities should communicate with each other,” he said, adding that such communication was only possible through the broader study of the Estonian language. He also called for Russia to deal with its own history, and to adopt a better understanding of Estonia’s misery under Soviet rule. “Life under the communist dictatorship has left a very strong mark on Estonians. It is connected with liberty. That understanding, I think, is not very widespread in Russia,” he said. When meeting with Russian community groups and public figures in Narva, Poettering said it appeared most residents of the border city considered themselves Estonian, no matter what language they spoke.

His working visit also included meetings with President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, whom he invited to address the European Parliament, and Prime Minister Andrus Ansip, who demonstrated Estonia’s highly praised e-government cabinet room. Poettering, who comes from a legal background, was elected president of the European Parliament in January this year.

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